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A Call for Collaboration

Feature

Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention builds partnerships with scientists in former Soviet states and other countries, turning technical know-how that may formerly have been devoted to weapons toward peaceful commercial pursuits.

Early in the 1990s the Soviet Union was dissolving into independent states. A peculiar problem arose: large numbers of scientists at work on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction suddenly found themselves without a salary or a future. In an age of rogue states and international terrorism, the prospect of weapons scientists up for grabs, looking for work wherever they could find it, called for an imaginative and practical response.

In response to an act of Congress, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration launched a unique program in 1994 designed to engage current and former weapons scientists in peaceful pursuits that might lead to commercial products and services. Initially known as IPP, for Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, the program is now called GIPP – G, for Global, having been added since 2004.

The Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program has three main components: institutes and scientists abroad, U.S. private companies, and scientists at DOE national labs. Any of the parties can initiate a cooperative, cost-sharing, commercial project, with support shared between the U.S. government and the participating firm. To date, hundreds of GIPP projects have generated revenues both inside and outside the former Soviet Union and created or sustained thousands of jobs.

At Berkeley Lab, GIPP is under the administrative umbrella of the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division (AFRD), with Tamas Torok of the Earth Sciences Division as Program Manager.

“Although IPP started with a focus on weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union, adding Global to the name was an indication of changing times,” Torok says. “The former Soviet states are no longer the only focus of collaboration. GIPP has worked in cooperation with other government-supported organizations, such as the NSF-established CRDF Global and DOD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, to establish programs in Iraq, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and many other countries. There’s less emphasis on proliferation prevention and more emphasis on pure scientific collaboration.”

GIPP is looking to the future in other ways as well. “We’re casting a wider net, looking for projects designed for rapid results at institutions we haven’t engaged before,” Torok says. He explains that traditional collaboration in the nuclear, chemical, and biological sciences will continue, but GIPP’s efforts also now focus on two-year projects in a number of Targeted Initiative areas, including nuclear safety, law enforcement, biological threat prevention, probiotics and health, and drug design and development. In addition, the emphasis on commercial projects is being augmented by numerous training courses and workshops in areas of mutual interest to GIPP participants.

A rich history

Glen Dahlbacka, now retired from AFRD, was IPP’s first Berkeley Lab program manager. Although his education was in astrophysics and his background was in laser-fusion technology, Dahlbacka’s first job at Berkeley Lab was heading Industrial Program Development in the Technology Transfer Department. It was a natural fit with the commercial partnerships IPP was seeking, and in 1999 he assumed the management of the Lab’s participation in IPP, a post he held for an energetic nine years.

Glen Dahlbacka, left, was the first manager of Berkeley Lab’s Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, succeeded by Tamas Torok, right. The two worked together on a number of initiatives, including a collecting trip to the geothermal riches of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Torok succeeded Dahlbacka as program manager after many years of crossing paths with him and traveling with him in Russia and the newly independent states. A microbiologist, Torok credits Dahlbacka not only with building the GIPP program at Berkeley Lab but with introducing him to many of the people and places that resulted in his most rewarding forays into the wilds of the East. Dahlbacka’s contacts were indeed wide-ranging. At one point, he estimated that Berkeley Lab held the world’s greatest collection of isotopically pure silicon, acquired under an IPP partnership with a plant that enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Torok’s own IPP experience had begun in 1997 with a visit to Russian laboratories and whole cities that were beginning to appear on maps for the first time – formerly secret locations of chemical and biological weapons research and development. One of these laboratories, deep in Siberia, was called Vector. On his return to Russia in 1998, Torok worked with Vector scientists to prospect the environs of Lake Baikal, testing the lake’s deep sediments and surrounding hot springs in pursuit of ancient organisms with biotechnology potential.

“DuPont wanted to screen our Lake Baikal strains, and the company’s interest later continued with bioprospecting on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, and the deserts of Uzbekistan,” says Torok. A GIPP crop-protection project in partnership with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont Company, got underway in 2004, and in 2008 it made the transition from a GIPP project to a work-for-hire contract between Pioneer and Berkeley Lab.

Meanwhile other bioprospecting programs were established under GIPP, some also involving Vector, now officially known as the SRC Virology and Biotechnology Institute, plus other Russian institutes including the Center for Ecological Research and BioResources Development in Pushchino and the Institute of Seismology and Volcanology in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The Durmishidze Institute of Biochemistry and Biotechnology in the independent state of Georgia and the Uzbek Institute of Microbiology in Taskent were also partners in the enterprise. The goal, in partnership with the Diversa Corporation (now the Verenium Corporation) of San Diego, was to establish novel biotechnology applications in these countries.

Dahlbacka played a catalytic role in several of these expeditions. In 2001 he and Torok flew deep into the wilds of the Kamchatka Peninsula by helicopter to prospect for microorganisms in the region’s numerous geysers and hot springs. In the Uzon Caldera, the warm waters attract what are reputedly the largest brown bears in the world. Dahlbacka came face to face with one of these visitors and was glad for the presence of the armed ranger who accompanied their trip, although luckily bullets weren’t needed. When the bear left, Dahlbacka photographed his own diminutive hiking boot beside the bear’s gigantic paw print. Even scarier was the prospect of a 150-mile hike back to town when the helicopter’s return was long, but luckily temporarily, delayed.

“The basic idea is that microorganisms produce secondary metabolites that may have antifungal or insecticidal effects, or other desirable properties,” says Torok. “Once the screening produces some leads, we use reverse engineering to determine the actual genetic information that codes for the successful secondary metabolite” – such as a natural biocontrol molecule.

Torok says, “In the case of crop protection programs, these microbial sequences are transferred into major crop plants to protect them from fungal pathogens or insect pests. These transgenic plants are now growing in numerous countries worldwide.” Specific molecules and technologies used in microbial crop protection are protected by numerous international patents.

Following Torok’s lead, many current projects with Berkeley Lab participants have evolved in biotechnology in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Currently there are five approved GIPP projects at the Lab with another 11 on the way.

Looking to the future

“We would like to expand from biology to energy research and other fields, including physics-related ones, in which we had a number of thriving examples under Glen Dahlbacka’s direction,” Torok says. “We’ve certainly had successes in biology, but we’ve also had some remarkable successes in other fields as well.”

Two examples are the Plasma Scalpel Project and the Vertical Axis Wind Turbine Project, both developed through AFRD. Dahlbacka, although retired, continues to be involved with the Vertical Axis Wind Turbine Project he launched while at the Lab. The Russian partner is the State Rocket Center’s Makeyev Design Bureau in Chelyabinsk. Empire Magnetics Inc. of Rohnert Park, California, is the U.S. industry partner.

For generating wind power, long an attractive alternative energy source, vertical-axis turbines have an inherent advantage over horizontal, bladed designs in that the components subject to the most wear are located close to the ground, where they can easily be maintained. The footprint is small and the turbines are readily scaled for placement in a variety of locations, including the rooftops of city buildings.

In developing the improved design, scientist and engineers at the State Rocket Center designed and built a prototype and test versions of the rotor and designed an integrated system for electricity production. Empire Magnetics and its partner companies in the U.S. provided mechanical and magnetic bearings, a high efficiency alternator, and additional electronics.

An international patent on the unique technology has been filed. Within the European Union, negotiations are progressing toward a $160-million investment. Empire Magnetics has licensed the technology in the U.S. and is developing production sites in three states, with sublicensing negotiations underway in Korea.

After laboratory and animal tests, the plasma scalpel has been used for open-heart surgery on human patients, for which it is particularly well suited.

The Plasma Scalpel Project grows out of the kind of accelerator technology that makes practical use of accelerated particles. Ian Brown, formerly leader of the Plasma Applications Group in AFRD and now retired, led Berkeley Lab’s participation in the project, working in collaboration with Efim Oks, senior physicist and head of the Plasma Sources Laboratory of the High Current Electronics Institute in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Oks, an occasional guest scientist at Berkeley Lab, is a professor and head of the Physics Department at Tomsk State University. The business partner on the project is the Arthrocare Company of Austin, Texas.

Instead of cutting with a blade, a plasma scalpel uses a fine jet of ionized gas. The scalpel developed in this project was designed for bone cutting, performing with high efficiency at a high cutting rate. The device is small, simple, and convenient for physicians to use. With a plasma scalpel, operations are almost blood free.

A major application for the plasma scalpel is open-heart surgery, which requires cutting through the breast bone to open the chest for access to the heart. After extensive testing on laboratory animals, the plasma scalpel has recently been used for heart surgery on five human patients in Tomsk. In 2011 about 50 human surgeries are anticipated in Tomsk and elsewhere.

Scientific research through GIPP collaboration has advantages that begin with the opportunity to work with ingenious scientists in other countries whose knowledge, experience, and points of view are truly unique. The practical benefits are great as well, including financial and in-kind support from both DOE and the U.S. industrial partner. And on the foreign-partner side, in running a laboratory, the investment dollar goes farther.

Says AFRD Director Steve Gourlay, “This is one of the most attractive ways that Berkeley Lab scientists can enter the kind of international collaborations that really open doors to new knowledge.”

Additional info

More about GIPP and related programs can be found at the websites of the United States Industry Coalition, http://www.usic.net/gipp-program/; and CRDF Global, http://www.crdf.org/.

For more about prospecting for microorganisms in independent states of the former Soviet Union, see “An Asian Oddysey: at http://newscenter.lbl.gov/feature-stories/2007/12/07/an-asian-odyssey/.

For more about the origins of the vertical-axis wind turbine project, see “From Russia, with … Wind Power” at http://newscenter.lbl.gov/feature-stories/2004/10/04/from-russia-with-wind-power/

For more about research opportunities for Berkeley Lab and industry collaboration, visit the Tech Transfer Department at http://www.lbl.gov/Tech-Transfer/industry/ResearchOpps/